In the lead–up to the 2013 general elections, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was on the campaign trail, shaking hands and assuring constituents that their needs would be met when his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) came into power. From promising an end to loadshedding—a perennial bête noir that has yet to be resolved—to farming subsidies, his speeches reflected the usual rhetoric that are part and parcel of any politician’s canvassing efforts. An ongoing criticism that his governance only focuses on improving visible problems, such as congested or dilapidated roads, at the expense of the more insidious and less apparent societal woes such as crippling poverty was also beginning to smart. But even before the critiques started, the president of the PMLN’s Punjab chapter appeared to have decided something needed to change. Through daily interactions with the voters, he had been reminded of the widening gap between the conception and actualization of public sector reforms. It was time, finally, for a more holistic, task-driven approach.
Shortly after his party swept into power on May 11, 2013, he put his plan into motion. A little over a year later, in August 2014, the Punjab C.M. formed what would eventually become the Strategic Reforms Unit to identify and resolve the most pressing problems facing the people of his province. Given a wide-ranging mandate, the unit has slowly evolved into the chief minister’s not-so-secret weapon in the fight to ensure basic human rights are accorded to all residents of Punjab, regardless of wealth or social status.
There is no shortage of special committees or advisory bodies in Pakistan. From the highest echelons of power—Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s top foreign affairs official is ‘adviser’ Sartaj Aziz—to the lowest, these groups and individuals are responsible for ensuring the people’s needs are communicated to our elected officials. Unfortunately, a majority of them appear to exist solely to prop up their own members’ personal ambitions and any initiatives they undertake are soon forgotten or just brushed aside with change in leadership or lack of political capital. A recent example is the FATA Reforms package shelved by Parliament over resistance from some members of its ruling coalition. The Government of Punjab hopes to change that.
The SRU’s primary goal, says its 40-year-old head Salman Sufi, who comes from a public policy background, is to ensure that people from all walks of life, regardless of political affiliation or financial means, are given access to law enforcement, basic human rights, and the sense that their government is working for them. “One of our goals is to rebrand Pakistan,” Sufi tells Newsweek. “We don’t want people to think of Pakistan and think of terror attacks or failing infrastructure; we want them to think of our people, of our public welfare projects and of the work being done to alleviate the concerns of the people.”
The director-general of the SRU is rightfully proud of his team’s accomplishments over the past three years. In that time, under the leadership of C.M. Sharif, it has introduced 13 pieces of legislation in the Punjab Assembly, built Pakistan’s first Violence Against Women Center in Multan, trained 3,000 women to ride motorcycles as part of its Women-on-Wheels campaign, revamped the taxation and excise department, and established the Shehr-e-Khamoshan model graveyard in provincial capital Lahore—all under an operating budget of less than Rs. 9 million. And they’re just getting started.
The SRU’s first major accomplishment, hailed worldwide and embraced by treasury and opposition lawmakers alike, has been the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act and its implementation arm, the Violence Against Women Center. Launched in March 2017, the pilot project—the government is working to add satellites offices across the province—has helped resolve over 650 cases to date. It is helping women escape abusive families and find solace in southern Punjab where cases of violence against women are as heartbreaking as they are commonplace. In 2013 alone, over 5,800 cases of violence against women were reported in the Punjab. According to a briefing given to the Punjab C.M. “six women are victims of murder or attempted murder, eight are raped, 11 are assaulted and 32 are abducted in the Punjab every day.” The government hopes that as women become more aware of the work being done, and see dedication to resolving their problems, more of them will emerge from the shadows and seek the aid they so desperately need.
Similarly, Shehr-e-Khamoshan, the SRU’s most recent initiative, is tackling the problem of dignified burials for people who lack the means to afford them. It is providing free-of-cost burial services to anyone who requires them. From collecting the body to preparing it for burial and even locating a plot and arranging funeral prayers, everything is covered by the government, allowing people the ease of mind to mourn their loved ones without having to worry about how or where they will be interred.
Key to the SRU’s success is its independence from the provincial bureaucracy, which is often plagued by red-tape that prevents officials from introducing or implementing any projects without going through several rounds of committees, political pushback and even apathy. The slow grind of the wheels of governance can often expand the gap between conception and actualization to months, if not years. Sufi admits that initially his team faced some resistance from the provincial bureaucracy, which is used to running the affairs of state in a country that didn’t experience its first democratic transition of power until 2013. However, he points out, this did not last very long.
“We are not trying to replace or oversee the bureaucracy,” he tells Newsweek. “We exist to support and supplement their efforts. We work with local administrators and are very cognizant of their concerns. Similar initiatives to ours have failed in the past because they would attempt to paint the bureaucracy as silent spectators,” he says. The SRU’s policies have gone a long way toward convincing a reluctant bureaucracy that a technocratic set-up can be used to supplement their efforts to improve governance in Pakistan. This could prove useful in encouraging more public-private partnerships in future.
To ensure the SRU’s independence, no bureaucrats are included in it’s make-up, nor are there any political appointees. The team is also kept relatively small—it is currently comprised of a 5-member team of largely fresh graduates in their early 20s—who are dedicated to public service.
Back to basics
The SRU’s success in achieving real change for the people of Punjab is belied by its back to basics approach. The team initially brainstorms issues that are plaguing the citizenry based on complaints and grievances submitted. It then sets up meetings with local stakeholders and experts to gauge the feasibility of its goals and whittles the list down to achievable targets. In the case of the Shehr-e-Khamoshan, for example, the team met architects, engineers and even property developers to determine the best place for the graveyard and the most cost-effective means to deploy it. Every aspect was initially micromanaged by the unit—from the type of cloth used for burial shrouds to the flora planted within the graveyard—and all costs compiled and submitted for approval to the government. This attention to detail and accountability sets the group apart from other organizations, which rely on largely opaque processes that focus on end results without factoring in local concerns. In the case of the graveyard, the success has been unprecedented; within the first week, it received over 1,000 calls for help, reflecting the very real need fulfilled by the initiative.
A third major win for the SRU has been improvement to the Excise and Taxation department’s collection policies. Bureaucratic inefficiency, long lines and rude officials had made obtaining license plates for vehicles a chore and actively discouraged people from paying registration dues for their cars. Under the reforms introduced, all relevant dues are paid when the vehicle is purchased, allowing vehicles to be ‘road legal’ as soon as they are bought. Launched in October 2016, the current network is limited to Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad and Sargodha, but expansion across the province is currently in development. The reforms also fix registration plates to individuals rather than cars; previously, anyone buying a used vehicle had to re-register the car following their transaction. Now, license plates will be changed to reflect the new ownership to ensure people pay any dues owed before trying to sell their cars. Similarly, under the new rules, the government allows the sale of customized license plates as a means of generating non-tax revenue. People who used to resort to illegal license plates in the past have especially embraced this, according to available data.
Eye on the prize
Despite the sweeping changes the SRU has helped introduce, several opposition parties and rights activists have questioned if its policies can continue once the PMLN is out of power. This was a major concern, admits Sufi. Governance in Pakistan tends to be subject to the whims of the courts and ever-shifting political allegiances. Policies introduced by one political party are often summarily dumped when a rival group comes into power. To avoid this, any initiative adopted by the SRU is accompanied by legislation that codifies it into law and ensures that any change in government will require the provincial assembly to repeal the relevant laws with a democratic majority.
The passage of the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act was one of the SRU’s biggest successes. Critics have claimed it doesn’t go far enough and the Violence Against Women Center established to enforce it needs to be constantly monitored to ensure compliance. But for women fearful of visiting largely male police stations, it can be life changing. “The center will help improve the country’s justice system and all the facilities will be provided to female victims under one roof,” Sharif said while inaugurating the project earlier this year.
Proving that no law comes without controversy, the legislation faced backlash in the Punjab Assembly with male opposition lawmakers staging a walkout against it even as their female fellows embraced it. Its passage into law, however, has dulled some of the criticism. Opposition lawmaker Sherry Rehman has said it is a “vital initiative,” while international media outlets have praised the government’s efforts to ensure women are accorded safe spaces to seek justice for crimes committed against them. The legislation, for the first time, even managed to introduce chapters on women’s rights to school textbook for grades 9-12, instilling a sense of the rights accorded to all Pakistanis in students across the province with an aim at changing societal mindsets through education.
The SRU is also hoping to introduce societal change on a more micro-level. After the opposition PTI introduced the Punjab Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2017 in April, the advisory body pledged to diversify its own hiring policies. Shortly after, in a publicly advertised tender for new office help, the SRU encouraged transgenders to apply and Sufi says they have been very heartened by the response.
But while the SRU’s accomplishments are many and varied, they are still limited to Punjab, a sticking point considering the chief complaint of the PMLN’s rivals is the party’s focus on the province—from the Orange Line to the vast network of motorways that runs through it—at the expense of the rest of the country. Sufi says that while he cannot speak for the governments in Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, his team’s efforts have been noticed by Islamabad. The SRU has been invited to pitch projects to multi-party National Assembly subcommittees with intent to implement its policies at the federal level. This could be a game-changer in providing Pakistan’s impoverished and marginalized communities with much-needed support.
Sufi is the first to admit his team’s work has only just begun. The SRU is currently working on a senior citizens welfare bill that hopes to prevent elder abuse by enforcing fines and imprisonment for anyone found guilty of assaulting them. The law will also, per a draft, establish more old age homes and allow senior citizens to retract any property or finances their children might have coerced from them in addition to criminalizing the practice of withholding pension or dues from elders.
The unit hopes that its works can convince the residents of Punjab that it is working for all of them—not just those who voted the PMLN into power. “The voters are important, but they’re just a segment of the population. We want the PMLN’s political opponents to see our work and know that we are here for them. Especially if they didn’t vote for the party in power,” adds Sufi with a smile.
From our July 15 – 22, 2017, issue
Editor’s Note: The printed version of this article mistakenly linked the Strategic Reforms Unit to the C.M.’s Special Monitoring Unit. The online version has been subsequently corrected. We regret the error